Vahan Zanoyan

Why We Need Consequential Political Public Discourse Now: Can We Have Democracy, Let Alone Freedom, Without It?

191
0

By Vahan Zanoyan

Three years after the 44-day war, while both the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh remain in a de facto state of war, while an existential threat hangs over both republics, and while the global Armenian community is disoriented, divided, and endangered, we are not any closer to formulating a coherent national discourse around the nation’s challenges. Aside from the main opposing political factions, even seemingly non-partisan analysts, commentators and observers seem to have fallen into one hardened and intolerant position or the other.

The situation is so divisive that some family members either avoid discussing politics during family gatherings, or no longer talk to each other at all due to differing political views. The syndrome has affected long-standing friendships as well. I recently witnessed an acquaintance of mine being subjected to a brutal tongue lashing by his friend of over 30 years, because of his views on Armenia’s current national security strategy.

The diaspora is not immune to the syndrome — quite the contrary, some of the most extreme and intolerant positions hail from the diaspora. These, like their counterpart in Armenia, tend to be divided between either a categorical rejection of the current government, or an almost unconditional support for it; the space in between these two positions, aside from a number of nuanced variations of the two extremes, is generally filled by apathy.

This “civilized” way of managing the situation, i.e., avoiding any substantive discussion of politics, does not bode well for a healthy democratic society. In a post-Soviet culture where it is not customary to have literate debates on government policy in the first place, many issues of critical importance become too cumbersome to enter public discourse, and thus remain “unresolved,” in the sense that it is not clear where the majority of the population stands.

The call for a consequential public discourse does not aim to put the current or any other Administration in the spotlight. Its aim is to build a democratic culture which can generate a majority consensus via literate discourse. Today, we do not have a majority consensus neither in Armenia nor in the Diaspora, unless one considers a crisis in political confidence, apathy, and disillusionment a “consensus.” (N.B.: At the last parliamentary elections in 2021, the voter turnout was 49.37%; less than two years later, the latest polls conducted in March 2023 show that 64% of respondents did not trust any politician, even when 60% considered national security and border issues as the main problems of Armenia.)

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

One alternative to a majority consensus is the emergence of a visionary, daring, courageous, odd-defying, larger-than-life leader, who can inspire a common national purpose to the nation. The phenomenon, although known to happen in both our and other nations’ history, does not seem very likely at the present time in Armenia.

The Syndrome

What complicates and, at the same time, enables and sustains the roadblocks to informed discourse is the lack of efficient communication and transparency. The public does not have enough reliable information about what really went wrong in the 44-day war, the ongoing peace negotiations, the ultimate objectives of either the government or the opposition, the future fate of the former enclaves, the situation at our borders, the status of our prisoners of war, the state of our defense capabilities, or where would the Armenian government draw the red line when it comes to the fate of the Armenians of Artsakh. The vast information gap is filled with rumors, gossip, and sometimes deliberate misinformation. And while there will always be an important body of confidential information in matters of national security and sensitive peace negotiations, which should never be made public, a literate public discourse requires a minimal understanding of the broad strategic objectives of opposing political positions, and the rationale behind them.

Another part of the problem is that the Armenian public bases opinions on either individual political actors or political factions, not on issues or policy initiatives. Yet, very often, an informed public discourse requires distinguishing the message from the messenger. The public should be able to debate and judge a specific policy or a political message on its own merits, objectively and rationally, and not automatically accept or reject it based on who is advocating it. A recent example is the public reaction to a couple of announcements made by former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian regarding Armenia’s negotiations with Azerbaijan. By far the vast majority of social media reactions, both positive and negative, were directed at him personally, and not at the substance of what he was saying.

The syndrome partly stems from political immaturity and partly from the absence of critical thinking; but largely, it is simply a widely accepted social habit. The public can be trained to change the habit by repeated demonstrations of open debate of specific policies and issues, without referring to the individual proponents or distractors of the policy, and without mentioning any of the names of past or present Presidents, the Prime minister, or any political parties, focusing instead strictly on the question at hand based on the relevant current and historical realities.

 

This piece is not so much about the opposing views (or their relative merits) as about the discourse (or lack thereof) among them. Nonetheless, it is worth to briefly cover the disparity between the prevailing views, to get an idea of the nature of the beast. This will be a deliberately oversimplified version of what’s out there:

The Views

At one end of the spectrum is the view that a democratically elected government should be supported, period. If it has shortcomings — such as lack of experience and incompetence, which even some members of the government admit, at least in private — we should try to help it overcome them, rather than criticize and oppose its policies. This is particularly important, the logic goes, since the country is in a crisis, and all resources should be devoted to support the government which is trying to manage the crisis. This view exists both in certain circles in the diaspora and in Armenia.

At the other end of the spectrum is the view that the incompetence and misguided policies of this government are treacherous and are causing such irreversible damage to the Armenian nation and statehood, that supporting it solely on the basis that it is an elected government is self-defeating at best. The argument that the country is in crisis and therefore the government should be supported rings hollow to this group, because they view the government as the main cause of the crisis the country is in.

At the extreme level, with relatively few followers, some are even reluctant to take actions that could strengthen Armenia, fearing that they’d be further enabling and giving undeserved political credit to the incompetent and treacherous regime in power.

Regarding Artsakh, by far the most controversial issue remains that of being “realistic.” In a nutshell, for some, being realistic means admitting that we lost the war, that the world recognizes Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, that we have no international allies that support us on Artsakh, and therefore we should just let it go and stop fighting a futile war. For others, other facts have weight, such as: there is no legal basis for Artsakh to be part of Azerbaijan, Artsakh was always an autonomous region, even when part of Soviet Azerbaijan, it was never part of independent Azerbaijan, it has been part of the Armenian motherland for millennia and accepting it as part of Azerbaijan is sure to lead to ethnic cleansing. For this group, the struggle to keep Artsakh free and Armenian is a patriotic duty and admitting that Artsakh is part of Azerbaijan is not realism, it is defeatism.

The prime minister’s statement that Armenia can do nothing for Artsakh and that Stepanakert should negotiate directly with Baku appeals to certain citizens in Armenia, who are tired of 30 years of fighting for Artsakh and for what they view as empty nationalistic rhetoric and unfulfilled promises. And yet the same statement sounds like the ultimate sellout to others, who see in it a violation of the Declaration of Independence of Armenia, the Constitution, and the prime minister’s own declarations earlier in his term in office, and for whom the distinction between Artsakh and the Republic of Armenia is at best artificial.

The articulation of neither of these positions has been complete and intellectually honest. Is the “realist” group really ready to just hand over Artsakh and witness another part of the ancient Armenian homeland ethnically cleansed, and just go on with a “normal” life in Armenia? The question has been avoided. A recent Gallup poll shows that 94% of Armenian citizens find it unacceptable for Artsakh to be part of Azerbaijan. Similarly, is the “idealist” group willing to fight another unequal war? It has not yet articulated a practical solution that goes beyond its principled stand, even though the emergence of a determined, odd-defying, readiness to resist integration in Azerbaijan within a segment of Artsakh’s population comes close.

The Discourse—Issues that Deserve and Require Public Debate

Reasoned political discourse is central to any democratic process, and especially so for developing democracies. We often hear that democracy in Armenia is “still evolving” or it is understandably “not perfect,” as if that is an excuse for its shortcomings. But an honest political discourse is even more important in developing democracies because it is a critical catalyst to move the democracy forward.

While even an imperfect democracy is infinitely preferable to a brutal dictatorship, it does not guarantee sound government policies; history does not lack examples of democratically elected governments who have been disastrous for their countries. Any citizen of the Republic of Armenia, who cares about the future of his or her country, and is a stakeholder in that future, has every right to question and criticize the policies of any government without being turned into an outcast and declared an enemy of the state. Blindly accepting the government’s policies without questioning their logic and consequences negates the very premise of democracy.  My only caveat here would be that the critics should not use the levers of democracy to undermine the very democracy that has given them the freedom to criticize.

The record of a government in delivering on its promises is the most common and legitimate subject of public discourse. In the Spring of 2018, I saw the euphoria in the streets firsthand, and nothing can convince me that it was not genuine. The nation was ready for change. It was ready for a true revolution. It was ready to get rid of the corruption and favoritism that had afflicted the country in the preceding 28 years. It was ready for social justice. There was genuine hope in the air. Hope that the hitherto seemingly unshakeable old regime could finally be replaced with something better. Something more fair, more clean, even more patriotic. The “My Step” movement was at the right place at the right time. It ignited the flame and then rode on this wave of the public’s readiness for change.

But it is an undeniable fact that the “revolution” did not justify the hopes attached to it: Neither on ridding the country of the inherent systemic corruption, nor on the various statements and promises made regarding involving the people in key decisions affecting the nation, including Artsakh. Granted, noticeable progress was made in reducing corruption in the government bureaucracy, in public spending, especially on infrastructure and the network of roads, and in tax collection. That was significant enough to sustain its popularity and help it win the election in 2021. But the old post-Soviet monopolists are still alive and well, largely enjoying their privileged hold on certain sectors of the economy, albeit a bit more tamed than before. As for the promise of involving the people in key decisions affecting the nation and the future of Artsakh, many such statements have been proven to be lies. In an open, democratic society, this should have been the subject of public debate, without the use of a single derogatory or offensive adjective, and by the active participation of the government to explain the reasons for having to break those promises.

The intellectual class should have pointed out publicly that a golden opportunity to realize a true revolution in Armenia was seized by the My Step movement, and ultimately wasted, leaving behind a disillusioned, tired, and depoliticized public. An absolute majority in the parliament and an unpopular and ineffective parliamentary opposition, which was vocal in its criticism of the government but failed to offer a credible alternative or solutions, contributed to this failure.

Obviously, the 44-day war was a key development that brought all this to the surface. But it is debatable whether it was the cause of the stillborn revolution, or just the factor that simply exposed its true nature. This too should have been part of a literate political discourse.

A consensus on the “fair share” of responsibility for the crisis that Armenia is in is another casualty of the lack of literate political discourse. In a democratic society, it is natural for the government to be criticized more than the opposition. After all, it has the legal levers to govern and is ultimately accountable. Five years after being in power, it is not “normal” for a democratic society to still blame the preceding governments for almost all of the nation’s current ills. At the same time, there is no doubt that serious and fateful mistakes were made in the past. Yet too many in Armenia are still inclined to assign all the fault to one of the sides and acquit the other. The outcome of the 2020 war was at least in part the result of past mistakes. By the same token, the government who was in charge during the war cannot exonerate itself that lightly, nor can it pass its strategic mistakes and omissions since the end of the war onto others. The only way we could have had a more balanced public view on this was to have an informed, dispassionate, fact-based public discourse.

I have heard the argument that if professional national security analysts and political scientists, driven by their patriotic sense of duty, hope to help improve government policy, they should refrain from criticizing the government, otherwise they’ll be treated as outcasts and won’t have access to, let alone influence over, the decision makers. This is as exclusionary a policy as it gets, especially when the existential challenges facing our nation cannot be addressed by appeasement and tiptoeing around the issues. This too is the result of the “dominant party” syndrome — absolute majority of the governing party combined with an ineffective opposition. It forces competent, professional, and dedicated human resources, who want to be helpful, to either tiptoe around the issues, or give up the cause. It is a challenge to help the government in spite of itself, especially when the supremacy of State interests is not recognized.  This too is a direct symptom of the lack of public political discourse.

After the 44-day war, under the imminent threat of new wars, “selling peace” was added to the political arsenal of the government. In light of the statements of Ilham Aliyev claiming entire Armenia as Western Azerbaijan and the behavior of the Azerbaijani army at our borders (and inside Armenia-proper), the public should have in the very least questioned the attainability of peace, and, in turn, it should have listened to and debated a well-articulated, rational, and credible explanation from the government that justified the peace agenda. Neither took place.

Winning elections by pleasing a segment of the population by promises of “peace” and “living comfortably” is not sound democracy, especially when there is less than 50% voter turnout, unless that policy is widely and credibly debated and accepted through a consensus, providing assurances that national security (which 60% believe is the main problem facing Armenia) and the long-term viability of the state are not being sacrificed for the sake of short-term, tentative security solutions. This cannot be done unless the psychological barriers to public discourse are mitigated, and the population has the necessary information to discuss, and follow debates on, what’s at stake.

The inefficient way in which this Administration has tried to bolster the defenses of the country after November 2020 is yet another crucial topic for public discourse. Part of Armenia is currently occupied by the enemy, and there has not been wide public questioning nor any official explanation of what the government intends to do about it. Concrete and welcome progress in our defenses was recorded in September of 2022, in part due to progress made by private initiatives in military technology. But it should not take more than one glance at the map and one glance at Azerbaijan’s behavior to conclude that Armenia remains in a state of war. In a state of war, in any country, national resources would mostly be devoted to defense, which hasn’t been the case in Armenia. A truly democratic government would have invited a national discussion on this subject, with the hope of achieving support for its policies. Instead, the issue has become taboo.

Many other situations could and should have been subjects of public discourse. But let me conclude with the most critical consequence of the issues raised in this article. It is often asked why Armenians have failed to join forces, why isn’t the diaspora more engaged in Armenia, why do we remain so divided and fragmented even when we’re so close to an existential threat? My answer is simple: Because we do not have an overarching common national strategic purpose around which we can join forces. Unity and cooperation cannot happen in the abstract. Diverse forces and capabilities coalesce around a shared vision. A common national strategic purpose is not a single objective which everyone adopts — that may be impossible to achieve. Rather, it is a multi-tiered and multi-vector strategy, with an overarching vision, which can accommodate multiple national priorities, and to which an important majority of the nation subscribes. And I would argue that we have failed to formulate that common purpose because we have failed to forge a national majority consensus, which, in turn, is caused by the absence of literate and consequential public political discourse.

What’s at stake is our ability to consolidate the vast global resources and capabilities of the Armenian people. And that is the ultimate game-changer for our nation and statehood, waiting to happen.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: